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William Carlos Williams

The Young Housewife

Fiction | Poem | Adult | Published in 1916

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Summary and Study Guide


William Carlos Williams is considered to be a very progressive writer for his time. He worked as a physician along with writing poetry, and he is closely associated with the Modernist and Imagist movements in American literature. “The Young Housewife” first appeared in publication in 1916. It is written entirely in free verse. It is a short poem that details the sexism women of the time experienced, and it portrays the young housewife as a prisoner of her environment—the domestic domain to which she is confined. The poem also focuses on the objectification of women. Despite its social commentary, “The Young Housewife” is considered one of William Carlos Williams’s more vibrant poems.

Poet Biography

Born in Rutherford, New Jersey in 1883, William Carlos Williams was the son of William George Williams and Raquel Helene Hoheb. Raised in a home filled with a heavy influence of Caribbean culture, William Carlos Williams spoke Spanish at home and did not speak English as his primary language until his teenage years. Williams attended primary and secondary school in Rutherford, New Jersey until 1897; he then went to the Lycée Condorcet school in Paris for two years. He eventually attended the Horace Mann School in New York City upon his return to the United States, and in 1902 he entered medical school at the University of Pennsylvania. He graduated in 1906. After internships in New York, he studied advanced pediatrics in Leipzig.

In 1909, Williams published his first book, titled Poems. After he returned from Germany, Williams married Florence Herman, and the couple lived in Rutherford, New Jersey. Through a London press and with the help of Ezra Pound, Williams’s second book, The Tempers, appeared in publication via a London press. Around 1914, Williams and his wife had their first son, and in 1917 they would have their second.

Despite his primary occupation as a doctor, Williams led a prolific literary life. While he is mostly known for his poetry, Williams also wrote short stories, essays, translations, plays, and novels. He also had a lifelong interest in painting. He became involved in the imagist movement because of his associations with Ezra Pound and Hilda Doolittle (H. D.); however, his political views differed from theirs, and his artistic endeavors shifted into Modernism. In 1920, Williams came under severe scrutiny after he published the experimental work Kora in Hell: Improvisations. Both H. D. and Ezra Pound heavily criticized the work, calling it incomprehensible.

In 1923, Williams published Spring and All, but the collection’s publication was overshadowed by the success of T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, a literary sensation that overshadowed Williams’s contributions to poetry. In the 1930s, Williams began working on an opera, and throughout the 1950s he worked with and mentored many younger poets. His work had a significant influence on the Beat movement as well as the New York School. He served as Allen Ginsberg’s mentor. Williams would eventually write the introduction to Ginsberg’s 1956 work Howl and Other Poems.

Toward the end of his life, Williams suffered a heart attack and a series of strokes. He was hospitalized for four months after one stroke caused him severe depression. At the age of 79, he died at his home in Rutherford, New Jersey, and he was buried in Lyndhurst, New Jersey.

Poem Text

At ten A.M. the young housewife

moves about in negligee behind

the wooden walls of her husband's house.

I pass solitary in my car.

Then again she comes to the curb

to call the ice-man, fish-man, and stands

shy, uncorseted, tucking in

stray ends of hair, and I compare her

to a fallen leaf.

The noiseless wheels of my car

rush with a crackling sound over

dried leaves as I bow and pass smiling.

Williams, William Carlos. “The Young Housewife.” 1916.


The poem opens with a mid-morning scene. Specifically, it is 10 a.m., and a young housewife is in her husband's house, moving about, preparing for the day. The speaker is outside of the house, passing in their car. The housewife then comes to the curb and continues going about her daily duties. These include calling “the ice-man” and the “fish-man” (Line 6). The speaker describes the housewife as “shy, uncorseted” (Line 7) as she tucks in “stray ends of hair” (Line 8). The speaker’s observation is fleeting, but they compare the housewife “to a fallen leaf” (Line 9). The moment becomes one of brief interaction as the speaker drives by the housewife. The speaker grows more objective, focusing on the road ahead of them and the dry leaves that make a “crackling sound” (Line 11). The speaker passes the housewife, bowing and “smiling” (Line 12).